I received couple of tiresome emails yesterday, both questioning the value of citizen journalism.

The first said that 'serious' journalists help people make sense of their lives, and that news publishers will introduce 'dumbed down' citizen reporting only to maintain their readership and satisfy advertisers.

"I can only say that if people rely on citizen journalists to keep them informed, they are dumber than I thought and shouldn't be allowed to vote," said the correspondent.

The other email asserted that professional photographers and journalists are being 'demeaned' by citizen reporting and will lose work to untrained members of the public.


Overall, I think citizen journalism is a powerful force for good. Here's my response, which I suppose reads like an introduction to the medium:

I'm very well aware of the concerns that many people in the news industry have about citizen journalism.

Typical worries are that user-generated content is hard to verify, pays little heed to any ethical framework and is churned out by inexperienced writers. Another growing fear is that professional photographers will lose out because penny-pinching news organisations will use free mobile phone coverage instead.

I sympathise with these concerns, but in my experience those assumptions are just that - assumptions, generally expressed by people who don't use or understand how online news works in practice and the sophisticated way in which 'citizen journalism' is incorporated into online news coverage.

What exactly is citizen journalism?

The term citizen journalism is a broad term and still shifting in meaning. It covers photos or video taken by a member of the public and published on a mainstream or personal news site, comment and opinion contributed to a news site or blog, additional content (such as first-hand accounts used after the London bombings) and perhaps even a personal blog set up to cover a particular subject or location.

Discussion about online news and web publishing has moved far beyond the assumption that online news is all unreliable and just a techie fad. In April, Rupert Murdoch added his weight to the argument that newspapers faced declining readership and that digital news is the future.

Even if you don't like his politics, you have to admit that he has been fairly successful in identifying successful business strategies...

Why now?

It is important to ask why citizen journalism is taking off. A recent example of a burning local issue in Brighton was a trial of communal wheelie bins; rich people didn't want them outside their posh houses taking up parking spaces - renters with small flats wanted communal bins so the seagulls couldn't throw rubbish all over the road.

There was extremely limited coverage about this in the Argus and little room for discussion - so someone started a dedicated web forum and, for the most part, an extremely positive, articulate debate followed - including contributions from the councillor in charge of the trial.

That's an example of micro-citizen journalism really, but the issue needed thrashing out. It was free and quick to do online and local media should be asking themselves why they didn't provide an adequate platform for the debate.

There is much more debate about the phenomenon of citizen journalism in the US where academic discussion of the subject is much more intense. The issue of trust - or rather a lack of it - in the media is often cited as a problem, along with the hierarchical, one-way structure of mainstream news organisations.

The ability to produce and distribute news is now open to all - the most enthusiastic commentators have equated this development to Johannes Gutenberg's moveable type printing press...

Citizen journalism in practice

Any more than a cursory glance at sites that feature user-generated content - and the BBC offers an excellent example of best practice in this area - will show that far from replacing 'professional' news, public contributions are a valuable, often insightful complement to standard news coverage and are nearly always carefully presented and labelled as eyewitness accounts and reader opinion.

So citizen journalism is nearly always edited, proofread and contextualised by professional journalists.

Yes, some contributions will be shoddy, but it would be possible to argue that there is plenty of shoddy journalism out there too; press release re-writes, for example.

Mainstream media does not always get it right. You probably know that Dan Rather lost his job as CBS news anchor after broadcasting a flawed story questioning President Bush's war record. Within days, right-wing bloggers had shown that the memo at the root of the story was a forgery. A blogger who was an expert in typewriter fonts concluded the memo could not have been produced by a 1970s typewriter as the story had claimed.

That's just one powerful example of the fact-checking process that occurs in web communities and specialist blog networks.

Peer groups

Users generally want to contribute to sites and brands that they feel an affinity with, and the interactive nature of online news sites is a major incentive for readers turned off by 'one-way' news.

The more forward-looking news organisations have invested in and experimented with their online news products including blogs; Guardian Unlimited now records 10 million users every month compared to a print circulation of 360,000. It would be commercial suicide for any news organisation to dismiss the potential of an online audience, as Mr Murdoch has concurred.

On sites such as Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, most people make average contributions and there are usually some trolls who write rubbish and trash things. But the best contributors will also constantly revise and improve entries, which means content usually represents the very best of its users and not the worst. This is typical of these sophisticated self-monitoring online communities.

It is important not to underestimate the enthusiasm and dedication of some of the people that contribute to sites like this, or that run their own blogs and news sites. They may not be professional journalists, but the cream of bloggers will be experts in their field. Blogs are often an extension of people's jobs or their passions.

So who are you, anyway?

Technology journalist Dan Gillmor has been writing about citizen journalism for several years - long enough to recognise the potential and quit his day job to start a citizen journalism site. His mantra is: 'my readers know more than I do'.

I think it would be impossible to disagree with that - but it seems that much of the mainstream media do.

Who are the public? To the mainstream media, is the public just a group of people that aren't privileged enough to be journalists?

The public, the global community has many more experts, many more professionals, many more valid ideas and opinions and all of them are entitled to express those views.

I don't think the public is dumb. But in the challenging and often uncomfortable transition to the digital age, I'm frequently amazed that so many intelligent, committed and 'serious' journalists are still seemingly unable to overcome outdated and completely unfounded prejudices against a medium about which they appear to know very little.

Comments? Email me.

More news from journalism.co.uk:
News round-up: Citizen journalism is officially cool
The darker side of citizen journalism
Outing hails citizen journos
Citizen journalism discussed


From Murdoch Mactaggart, 16:56 26 July 2005

Well said!

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